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Derby Chamber Music's current season ended with what many people afterwards were saying was the best of the lot - Multi-Faith Centre, Derby University, 26 April 2019.
It's easy to hear why the Marmen Quartet, just a few years out of the Royal College of Music, has already won several awards. Haydn's Quartet in C, Op 74 No 1, begins with just a simple cadence figure, but the players opened up a world of sheer strangeness even in this tiny space. They went on to explore Haydn's dark-to-light expressive range and variety of colours with delightfully crisp tone and rock-solid unanimity. They did not so much dig deep to search the second movement's mysteries, as allow them to rise to the surface naturally. After enjoying the third movement's dead-pan wit, they set a helter-skelter pace for the finale that made the most of Haydn's usual mischief, with a nicely earthy take on the coda.
Philip Glass's Quartet No 3 originated as part of his score for the Paul Schrade film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fictionalised biography of the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Whatever its effect as film music, it left me with my usual reaction to Philip Glass - that, for all the surface motion, it was going nowhere underneath. But then, I'm an almost complete heretic where Glass is concerned, and other listeners enjoyed it more than I did. The third of the six short movements does have some rhythmic interest and a wide dynamic range, and movements 4 and 5 both have abrupt mid-air endings which added some spice of the unexpected. Overall, though, it left me with the nagging feeling that inside Glass's consciously austere musical language there's a self-indulgent streak.
Beethoven thought his Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131, was his greatest, and the Marmen Quartet supported his claim with playing of intensity and humour, unafraid to follow him all the way when he goes off on an outrageous expressive limb, which he does frequently. The players brought exemplary clarity to the textures of the slow opening fugue, and a magical sense of expectancy at the move into the second movement, given just the right kind of playful seriousness. The variations that make up the fourth movement felt a touch unsmiling at first, but in the light of what followed this seemed like a deliberate strategy. With the dialogues of variation 2 - cello with first violin, then viola - the strangeness really kicked in. The explosive pizzicato gestures of variation 4 were genuinely funny, and the quartet was not afraid to show us how just plain weird the secretive fifth variation is. There are moments when Beethoven can be quite baffling, but the Marmen Quartet had the artistry to show us that this is actually the point. The fifth movement was very fast but, again, the players possessed the collective technique to bring it off. The short sixth movement was, rightly, a quiet intake of breath before the finale. The quartet made no bones about what a strenuous work-out this is, but also teased out moments of calm, especially just before the coda.
These players have a breadth of vision to match Beethoven's own - look out for them.
Copyright © 3 May 2019